US likely to increase testing for avian flu

Mar 26, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – In the face of recent avian influenza outbreaks and resulting import bans on US poultry, a partnership of government and industry groups is moving toward a major increase in testing for the disease in US flocks.

The expanded testing will probably begin this year through the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), a federal-state-industry program for controlling poultry diseases by setting standards and certifying hatcheries and dealers, according to Minnesota and federal officials.

"The NPIP is proposing to add some changes to their plan to increase surveillance or testing for avian influenza in commercial poultry flocks throughout the country," said Dale Lauer, DVM, director of the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar, Minn., and an assistant director with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

"It would be a voluntary program and would include testing for turkeys, broiler chickens, and layer chicken flocks throughout the US," Lauer told CIDRAP News. "It's a national plan, but it would be up to individual states and industries to run the program and report the results to the NPIP."

About 45 countries currently have bans on imports of all US poultry or poultry from certain states, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The embargoes are in response to recent outbreaks in Texas, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Most of these have involved low-pathogenic avian flu, but an outbreak that surfaced in Texas in late February was highly pathogenic. That outbreak did not involve the H5N1 virus that has affected much of East Asia and triggered at least 34 human cases with 23 deaths.

Current testing for avian flu varies from state to state, depending primarily on the state's experience with the disease, according to David A. Halvorson, DVM, an extension veterinarian in avian health at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Because Minnesota has had a number of low-pathogenic avian flu outbreaks in turkeys in recent years, all turkey flocks are tested, he said. But testing of chickens is at a much lower level because the state has had very few outbreaks. Other states that have had considerable outbreak experience also tend to test their commercial flocks aggressively, Halvorson added.

Lauer said the expanded surveillance program would mean a major increase in testing of most poultry categories in most states. The current plan, though subject to change, calls for weekly sampling of broiler chicken flocks and probably monthly sampling of layer chickens, he said. In Minnesota, he noted, turkey flocks are already sampled daily.

Overall, Lauer said, "It'll be monthly surveillance at a minimum. That'll be a big increase in most cases."

While the testing will technically be voluntary, customer requirements will make it a practical necessity, he said. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health notes on its Web site that most countries will not accept hatching eggs or live birds unless they have been raised under NPIP standards.

NPIP delegates are scheduled to discuss and vote on the expanded testing program at their biennial meeting in July, according to Lauer and Halvorson. But Lauer said that with the approval of the US secretary of agriculture, the NPIP can proceed with program changes before they are approved by the full organization. "They'd like to implement the program before the approval by the delegates," he said. "So it could be starting fairly soon."

It's not entirely clear how the increased testing, assuming it happens, will be paid for. The costs of testing are shared by the USDA, the industry, and the states, according to Halvorson. The USDA provides antigens for the tests, while state laboratories conduct the tests, he explained.

Suzan Holl, a spokeswoman for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the Bush administration has proposed $12.7 million for increased poultry testing in fiscal year 2005, which begins in October.

"In my humble opinion, it's not enough," said Lauer. "You're talking about surveillance on all the commercial poultry in the US. That's a huge job." He added that states and the poultry industry would have to provide more funds if the plan is to work.

While the NPIP plan focuses on commercial poultry flocks, the USDA has a separate plan to increase monitoring of live bird markets on the East Coast for avian flu, according to Holl. In addition to testing for the disease, the USDA wants to get operators to keep their markets cleaner, she said. She said there are about 85 live bird markets in New York, 35 in New Jersey, and three in Pennsylvania.

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